Ever since the days of the early Church, the Old Testament has played a key part in preaching and worship. The epistles of Peter and Paul make that pretty clear. Read also the works of the Church Fathers (St. Ambrose’s treatise “On the Mysteries” and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom) and the saints (sermons of St. Francis de Sales), and you will find plenty of allusions to the Old Testament. Even to this day, in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass, the writings of the Old Testament are given a pre-eminent place.
Being old does not necessarily mean that the writings of the prophets, the historical books or the Psalms/Wisdom literature are somehow outdated and obsolete. In fact, one could go so far as to say that we cannot completely understand or know Christ without them. Calling Jesus the “Lamb of God” means very little if we have no understanding of the Passover event recorded in the Book of Exodus.
Familiarity with the Old Testament helps us realize that we are a part of the story of salvation history. This is the story that begins with creation and the Fall, climaxes with the events of Calvary and the resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and concludes with Christ’s return in glory. The stories of Abraham, Jacob and Moses are very much a part of our own history as a Christian people.
Being familiar with the Old Testament opens our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the wonderful ways God works on behalf of His people. It opens us up to a better understanding of how God truly does make all things new. This week’s Gospel reading highlights one of those key moments: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.”
The Book of Exodus recalls how God provided manna, a heavenly bread, as food for His chosen people as they wandered through the desert. This has obviously stuck in the minds and hearts of the people as a truly wondrous event, and they have asked Jesus if He can perform an even greater feat as a sign of his messianic authority. Our Lord tells the people that it was not Moses who gave them the manna, but God. He also tells them that God has gone one step further by giving them a bread that will provide them with eternal life.
Jesus identifies Himself as the bread that has come down from heaven. This raises a few eyebrows. His listeners know him as the son of Joseph and Mary — as one of them. How can He claim to have come down from heaven? Our Lord uses this occasion to speak once more about his relationship with the Father. Here we have a Gospel reading that allows us to reflect once more on the wonder of the Incarnation. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; He is the true bread that comes down from heaven.
This same Gospel reading invites us to reflect on the wonder of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The passage concludes with Jesus saying that the “bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Yes, He is speaking about the sacrifice of Calvary. But what happened on Good Friday is inseparable from what took place on Holy Thursday, when Christ instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of His saving death and resurrection. In the Eucharist, which is our heavenly food, Christ continues to offer His flesh for the life of the world through the sacramental signs of bread and wine. The Eucharist is our pledge of eternal life because it is a sharing in the risen life of Christ, who is the head of the Church, His mystical body.
What was given in the desert to the people of Israel was only a shadow of something greater to come. The manna gave new life to a people who were hungry and tired from the journey, but no more. The new bread of heaven, the Eucharist, gives life to the soul, a new and eternal life. Understanding the Old Testament, indeed, helps us to see how God can truly make all things new.